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Gemma Griffiths, “The White Shona” of Zimbabwe

To many South Africans, the late Jonathan, or Jonny Clegg to his fans, was known as “The White Zulu” for his fusion of English and Zulu trad...

To many South Africans, the late Jonathan, or Jonny Clegg to his fans, was known as “The White Zulu” for his fusion of English and Zulu traditional idioms as lyrics, influenced by Western rock flair. 

With his band Juluka (sweat, their energetic traditional dances were widely received by the diverse audiences that followed his music.

Clegg was born to a Rhodesian mother, relocating to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) after his parents divorced. At the age of six, they relocated to South Africa, where he mastered both Zulu and maskandi guitar and the immigrant dances. His versatile beats united and gave hope to the nation at the peak of repression instigated by the oppressive white settler regime.

Performing in public alongside black musicians was considered a crime during the apartheid era, but Clegg and his band endured the constant harassment and censorship unleashed by the white government. “Asimbonanga” a protest song against the apartheid regime over Nelson Mandela’s continued incarceration became a national anthem. His death in 2015 robbed the world of a superstar.

Gemma Griffiths is emerging as Zimbabwe’s own version of “The White Shona” with her fusion of the dominant Shona vernacular and English lyrics. She got to the limelight with a redo of Winky D’s “Musarova Bigman”. The soulful, slow ballad projected her to the global stage when the remix became a hit locally and in Europe. The versatile artiste could easily navigate past the racial divide with ease, while her talent overlooks colour.
Gemma Griffiths, “The White Shona” of Zimbabwe
Gemma Griffiths, “The White Shona” of Zimbabwe 

The collaboration with Winky D on Mugarden in 2019 propelled the video to become the number 1 trending video in Zimbabwe hours after its premiere. The same year, Gemma launched “Driving Pamwe” (driving together which will be her debut album) in which she shared stories, travelling across Africa making music. In 10 months, they had covered almost 15,000 kilometres from South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, and Zambia to Zimbabwe.

“The road trip is a project started by two creative, myself and filmmaker Marc Neilson, and we started driving across Africa this year (2019),” Gemma told the Herald. The expansive project seeks to share African stories with people they meet on the road. “Driving Pamwe” was founded with the purpose of sharing stories of the people and places we came across on the journey through Africa,” the artiste said. “The project seeks to find artistes, musicians, creatives and share their art via the platform, and bring light parts of the continent that are uplifting and interesting,” she added to the daily.

Her latest video “Gara Pano” (stay here) is dedicated to Zimbabweans to stay positive, despite the negative energy around them. “Love inspired me to write “Gara Pano”. I am motivated daily by simple things, like when news channels blare out bad news, but you can still find a reason to smile or my favourite uncle who takes time to ask about my day, or love stories blossoming in unexpected places,” said Gemma.

The singer is inspired by the resilience of Zimbabweans, and she owes her success to the nations. “Their positivity and resilience have taught me what to aspire for since my childhood,” she said. “Zimbabweans are an inspiration, they seek joy first, and with Zimbabwe as my home and teacher, I owe my all to her.”
Gemma Griffiths, “The White Shona” of Zimbabwe
Gemma Griffiths, “The White Shona” of Zimbabwe 

Gemma was born in Zimbabwe but temporarily relocated to Cape Town, South Africa. In the USA, she studied music, focusing on the piano, trumpet, and voice. She linked with South African artistes such as Jimmy Nevis and Freshly Ground. Locally she shared the stage with Jah Prayzah and the late Oliver Mtukudzi. She made regular appearances at the annual HIFA.

“Gemma’s passion for her country, and its melting pot of energy and the rhythm, remains the driving force of her work,” her website says. Her song “Titungamire” (lead us), shot in a church, calls for the Creator to look upon Zimbabwe, a country she adores much, but has endured much over the last two decades. In Italian, her name means a gem or precious stone, and her talent has proved as well.
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